by Tracy Coppola
The echoing sound of water against rock. The long embrace behind the toy factory, rejected dolls eyes scattered all around. The promise, whispered over and over, that, no matter what, the coronation meant her good-fortune days had just begun.
* * *
It’s about to rain, she can feel it. She can smell it. The Girl opens her palm, tests the air, and decides to wait another minute. She looks across the way at Mr. Kite’s Sweetshop and eyes a pair of high-tops on the fire escape, then shifts her eyes slightly to see the blue boots standing at an open window. To calm her nerves, she figures the owners of these shoes are dating: High-Tops is a little more codependent than Blue Boots and, after the trauma of their electric blanket catching fire, recently proposed. They’re in a fight now because Blue Boots recently got a polarizing neck tattoo that said Burn Blunts, Not Forests. An old, gnarly tree with a fury of gnomes encircling and rolling their papers. The Girl reviews her list of virtuous qualities: she volunteers as a tombstone cleaner and has never been convicted of a crime. She reminds herself she has reoccurring dreams where she cuts the ribbon on a new highway overpass she built to save wild animals vulnerable to incoming traffic. When she can’t sleep she runs laps at the high school track and when she can sleep, she dreams of finding a stranger’s lost dog.
The Girl checks the time again, turns around, and there he is. The King. He has crutches.
The Girl tries to speak.
It’s the cast. The King shifts closer. He places the top of his still-large hand on her wrist. Ninety seconds. He loses his balance, pulls back. The Girl looks down. She can’t smile. She wants to crawl into any open window and drop down into any consequence.
No it’s time. As she says this she doesn’t recognize her own voice. Time has passed. People no longer stare incredulously when she reveals her age. What was once quirky and childish—a love of yarn dolls, puppets, Minnie Mouse sweatshirts that shouted Girl Power—is now looked at as troubling. She cannot imagine what she now resembles to him. Someone’s sun spotted mother. An overexposed Polaroid. Desiccated taxidermy. Everyone’s Ma’am.
As if reading her thoughts, he shakes his head and laughs. It’s all rattle. She still doesn’t know what to say so she stares at the curb. She’d like to summon the family of raccoons she once saw staring back at her from the storm drain.
It’s been too long. He says this carefully. I’m glad you’re back around. He says this slowly.
The Girl looks up, wants to say she was only back for a little while, sees his determined eyes, and sinks back. The King shuffles forward.
So hey, remember what we used to say about Peanut the dog? Come on, now, you know it.
No. No. I’m not—
HEY, SO WHAT HAPPENED TO PEANUT? JUST SAY IT! The King’s smile yells and the tip of a crutch points to her chest. He is ugly.
AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long blares out with unnecessary confidence. The bar closest to them tests the new sound system it has been threatening for months. There had been a series of neighborhood protests about this, loud almost to the point of irony, and The Girl had been part of them, passing out marshmallows to the screaming marchers as a show of solidarity. Now she is thankful for the indulgent electric guitar solo. She takes a short breath. Her eyes move to the cast, the forgotten waist, and then to his chest, all sunken treasure. The King, once the most beautiful Technicolor creature in the universe, is now all bones and angles. Almost a hallucination.
She remembers the first encounter. The sun was setting. In the pasture, they held the sides of trembling sheep who took their first breaths of freedom from a life subjected to merino wool sheering. She was looking right into the eyes of a young ram they both were steadying. She was wondering if these animals could actually feel her love when a thumb brushed onto hers. She looked up from the shaking, raw-skinned animal to the man. There was no ceremony needed. No oath. No discussion. The coronation was immediate. He became The King. The wild King. The hair. The smile. The skin. Eyes unblinking. Her leader. Guide star. Dream-maker to follow, to worship, like the people who once compulsively shared caves with curved-clawed bears.
The ram pushed away and bolted toward his new green world. The King stayed in place. She heard a starting pistol. That night, The Girl started sleepwalking.
She looks at his eyes. She can see The King is fully in it, just like all the times before but with even more determination. She hadn’t noticed until now that the bar has grown silent, the clouds have rolled off and the sun is now strict and punishing. She closes her eyes and slowly recites for him.
Peanut became peanut butter.
She feels a thick sickness in her throat. She forces herself to think of humorless busboys waiting for the bus as she hears it stop at the corner, look around, sigh, and set off again. She squeezes her eyes until she’s nudged by a tiny man with two phones and a coffee cup, darting around them to get by, first scrambling behind The King’s standing crutch, then squeezing away to the side. The Girl dreams of following this petite innocent.
She closes her eyes again. The first time they walked together, side by side, she could not feel her feet touch the ground. After a short while, he would march straight ahead and she would follow him and glare sharply at everyone they passed because they were not throwing roses, bowing, genuflecting.
The Girl opens her eyes.
You don’t look the same. I can’t describe how you look now.
As bad as PEANUT? All smashed up. We said ‘smothered like peanut butter!’ The thing—what did we say to the —
No. Please. Please, no. I don’t remember.
You don’t remember. Come on, you remember.
I can’t remember, says The Girl.
You remember. That homeless tweak and her dog. You’d laugh. Always so good.
The King shuffles a little closer. The Girl’s lower abdominals churn. She puts her hand on her stomach, presses. Last night she ate leftover cake with pink frosting the neighbors offered her out of the blue. So kind it was uncomfortable. She imagines they baked the cake for their kitten’s birthday party before the kitten left town, little briefcase in hand for the big job interview. Her mother, who had hated The King from the outset—he is a tumbleweed man and you are his 10am prostitute—wanted to order her a birthday cake the first years she was away with him. The long, blue sheet cakes delivered with busybody balloons so anxious to assert themselves. The sadness in her voice when The Girl so quickly refused this offer year after year.
There could have been so many ways to make her mother happy.
I waited till you left. I took Peanut off the street and I buried him in a bag. I looked for the homeless girl. All over the place. And when I finally found her, she was sleeping. I told her I was sorry. I did that. It was better than nothing at all.
The King throws his crutches down, extends his arms and loses balance. The Girl catches him. He stays.
The neighborhood maintenance crew is soon ordered to replace all the willows with cacti.
* * *
More years pass and The Girls’ dreams grow and twist. One reoccurs: in a garden, it is beautiful and silent and dark. She leaves her shoes behind to patiently await her return. The grass is shy and wet. It touches her ankles as she passes the flowering dwarf shrubs and enters the tall boxwoods. This could be an island. Something is shifting around near the far corner, and she follows it. Through another thicket she sees a brown bear pacing back and forth in a long-abandoned, gasoline-smelling cage. Exhausted, panting, the bear grows still. Except for his eyes. They are panicked, scanning, searching for her. She can see he is dying of thirst.
* * *
When she was a child, The Girl was shy. An energetic shyness. It confused people. With guests, and there were many, she would start a conversation boldly, make eye contact and then retreat, pulling on her cuticles till they bled or shredding her napkin until bits would fall to the floor, covering the blind dachshund’s back. Her mother once said The Girl would push food under the serving dishes to create a stir and cut off conversation. That she would leave embarrassing little gifts near guests’ shoes—a set of tiny kitten erasers, a watercolor of a walrus enlisting in the army—that her mother would clear away before they were discovered. During this time, The Girl had an intense love for baked goods—cookies shaped like gnomes made the top of the list—and she’d pile up a bundle and sit at the top of the stairs, spilling crumbs on the tops of visitors’ heads as she observed them in stealth. The strange girl, the little girl, with the dolphin earrings who shivered and vowed never to fetch the mail again after the first man whistled at her. The Girl who found a king, died, buried him, and died again.
* * *
At one point in time, before there were houses and villages there were caves, and people crawled in those caves to sleep at night, and lying beside them were the largest brown bears to ever roam the earth—but these two were not equals. The bears had gotten there first, their teeth were pointed and people were their subjects.
For years after they are reunited by the bus stop, The Girl sleeps beside The King, half awake and guarding him like he was an endangered animal, an act of penance for the years before when she had been away and abandoned him. After he dies, she barely sleeps at all. The Girl remains in the cave where they had lived for so long. She speaks to no one. Often she is motionless for hours and silent, as if suspended in a successful game of hide and seek.
Last night, she noticed an outline of the tallest water slide was starting to shadow her room. She sat up straight all night staring at the window, fearing an onslaught of children, a tangle of wet toes on the curtains. She remembered the last time she was on a waterslide, too overgrown for a Bugs Bunny bathing suit. Trying to cover what was popping out while she waited and waited for her turn. Her mother noticed and the next day rolled out a plastic wet banana Slip and Slide onto the paved driveway at home and hosed it down. Just enjoy this slide here, and no one will watch. It’s newer than those funny old waterslides. The Girl threw herself on to the pavement a couple of times and waved as her mother watched from the kitchen sink. When her skin started to break and bleed onto the shining plastic, she pretended she was too exhausted to continue.
Today, she has visitors. Building management. The Girl rests the back of her hand to her forehead, feels the temperature in the room shift and settle. The Chihuahuas protest all parts of this—they don’t want these folks poking around in here any more than they want to go outside. They are used to the inside. Quick pit-stops in apartment 404, scraps in apartment 503, and then back under her bed for the rest of the day, doors closed. For years, it has been enough.
The Girl wants these visitors—Cheap Pants Suit and Dandruff CEO—to leave. The questions, the sniffs. Fake, sympathetic smiles. They ask her if she plans on staying now that she is alone in this room and in the rest of the building. They have plans of their own. They’d like her to go away. Soon there will be no questions, just demands. They open and close her windows to confirm, then double-confirm, the activity from across the way. These people think Water World will save everyone.
She can’t imagine this happening, especially for the children in this city. Their parents make them deliver the Friends of the Old Tire Factory newsletter—inviting participation in its Biannual Tire Painting Day for The Whole Family—at night. The builders host a drug-free carnival with oily clowns. Otherwise you don’t see kids walking around, especially during the day, and the ones that do walk around are unbathed, hunched up gremlins with hidden horns, squinting in the sun.
Days ago, The Girl tiptoed onto the old hallway carpet, traced her fingers along the tired walls—paint peeled back long ago by his dying, manic fingers—and then laid down in the very middle of the hallway for an hour, then four hours maybe the whole day why not. No one would see her. Throughout the passing hours, mouse brigades came close, concluded she wasn’t the enemy, and reported back to the talking radiator at the opposite end of the hall. She almost made it all the way down the hallway, but then quickly turned around back to her apartment, slamming the door shut behind her. For a few minutes, she thought to announce to her room that she was just returning from being out atop the biggest tree canopy on the planet. But then she quickly reminded herself that, these days, even the Chihuahuas were bolder.
And there were no more trees, just hollowed out stumps. The Water World development was assaulting her entire block, across the street and all the way around toward the other. The King would have torched the place, would have injected poison into the water. Princes who never become kings throw temper tantrums. Kings who were never princes destroy.
The Girl does nothing. The first year after he dies, she calls soup kitchens, animal shelters, hospices. She promises eager volunteer coordinators that she is on board, that she wants to help. She never even shows up for orientation. She sees The King laughing at her, with her, because of her. Kicking the puppy, loving the puppy, leaving the puppy.
She stays inside and forces herself to sit a table for hours, working on a list of virtuous qualities. Then, after a while, because she has nothing else, she remembers. His coronation could not save her. She remembers she didn’t yet know The King when she laughed at the special needs baby trying to eat. That it was years before she first saw him when she alone turned away from a panicked hatchling that was stuck to the blood of its sibling, flapping and screeching for rescue. The crack of its skull after the traffic started up again. That, as a child, she tormented the girl with the malformed jaw and put her grandmother’s companion Pekinese at the back of the shed, leaving him to howl in fear for hours. That she was the one who ran over Peanut. That she is a desert. The King became her king. But maybe she was born one. It was better to stay inside.
When her visitors leave, The Girl will go to the window and hold up a tiny stop sign to the construction crew. She will stand there for hours. She will close her eyes and dream of mangroves.
* * *
She is now grey. She is all drought.
The water in her apartment trickles, stops, trickles, stops.
Across the way, the slides, pools, and fountains fill.
About the Author
Tracy Coppola grew up exploring the woods of Northeast Ohio with family roots throughout Puerto Rico. She earned a Masters in Environmental Policy from Vermont Law School and an undergraduate degree from Yale University. She is an advocate for social and environmental justice issues, the funnies, and animal welfare.